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All the Voices in the Conversation: Uzo Aduba on National Champions

Based on the play of the same name by Adam Mervis (“21 Bridges”) and directed by Ric Roman Waugh (“Greenland”), “National Champions” follows star collegiate quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) who, along with his best friend Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), plan to rally the players of both teams to strike. Their goal is to fight for fair compensation for all players—not just stars like LeMarcus who will have no problem selling his name and image. With 72 hours before the big game their coach James Lazor (J. K. Simmons) and an NCAA executive Mike Titus (Jeffrey Donovan) do everything they can to get their players back in line and the game back on track. That includes calling in fixer Katherine (Uzo Aduba), who sometimes uses unsavory means to get results for her clients. 

A one time college athlete herself, Uzo Aduba saw in “National Champions” a way to tap into her own past, while also asking tough questions about the nature of legacies. 

In the film you play a fixer who has her own history with college sports. How did you get involved with the film and what excited you about the character?

My agent said they thought I would be into a project like this, knowing that I played sports in college. When I read it, I was really blown away because I could see so many dramatic parallels with my own story in the script, which excited me. Then I really loved sitting down with our director Ric Roman Waugh, and chatting with him and his energy and enthusiasm and passion for the subject. I was drawn to the character Katherine and her challengers that she’s met with throughout the story, finding herself in this really middle of the road position in a very thankless job of being a fixer.

That first scene when you're introduced is just stunning. You have no lines and yet you are so powerful in that scene. 

It's the conversation, I think. The thing about that scene is information gathering is the thing that is really important to the character in that moment, to come to know each of the voices in that room and what they were in pursuit of and how best to strategically, tactically execute. So Katherine is a great listener. And she misses nothing, she pays attention to everything. So my desire in that scene was to sit back and assess whether these men actually had what it takes to do the job at hand.

Did you do a lot of research on fixers or speak with any fixers? I'm not sure if there's a fixer industry or how one becomes a fixer.

Right. Is there a headhunter who finds fixers? I didn't speak to any fixers. I don't know any fixers frankly. But I know what it means to execute and I knew that I wanted to borrow from Katherine's sports brain of completion and really sort of zoned in on her competitive edge, of wanting to win. That was something that really landed with me for her. And I knew that she was someone who finds solutions, and has found her way into this seat from very extreme and humble beginnings. But I knew that she is someone who does find solutions. So that was really what I leaned into.

As the film progresses you see more layers of the character. How did you tease that out for the audience?

Yeah, even though she's tasked with her job, she's still a person, she still has thoughts, she still has opinions. I think she saw that the intentions behind LeMarcus's movement were good. I think she was challenged by the idea of someone who had so much potential and promise losing all of that, for something that could not be solved through this moment, through this action in her eyes. She understood what his life really looked like lawless down the road, if he were to forfeit this opportunity that's gonna come only one time. So I think she finds her heart challenged by that. It's easy to look at Katherine on the surface and think of her as only a fixer, which she is, but she is also someone who is trying to do her very best with what she knows. She is trying her best to help him from himself.

You deliver a stirring monologue when Katherine finally meets LeMarcus. Did you add anything from your own experience as a student athlete to it? 

Parts of it were in there, for sure. We were shooting takes and he was such a great director. He gives you space to put in your own color and background and ideas. I was able to do some of myself into the material, which was satisfying and helpful in filling out the fullness of who this woman is. I think it's a vulnerable moment for her. She thinks she thinks of LeMarcus’ loss as her own loss. She was really trying to impart the fact that the woman you see today came from such a different place. That the truth of the matter is, they don't know her. They think they knew who she was, what her background was, what her experiences were, but fact of the matter is, they couldn't have been more wrong about her start in life. I think she's lived with that for a long time; A lot of people assuming that they know who she is. That she had this really fabulous start to her life. But the truth of the matter is, she had a really humble and challenging beginning. She had to work for everything.

The film presents the very complex issue of unionizing the NCAA and what that could mean for so many people involved, but it doesn’t really take any sides on the issue. What do you think audiences will take from it because of that?

I think it's maybe good that there's no neat ending. In this season of life where we've watched a variety of actions take place in real life in the form of protest or standing up or speaking out or hashtags et cetera, there is no neat ending is there? In any of those real life stories? I think that's actually the truth of what protest looks like. That it's actually a disruption and an interruption. The fact is that it becomes a responsibility of the next to pick up the baton. What are you? What will your action be? What will you do? I would really love for audiences to ask themselves that question. To ask the question: what is your legacy? That's what this film is about. What would you do to win? How are legacy stories created? How do we make them and for what? LeMarcus had the opportunity to script one particular legacy that finds himself choosing another path that is going to completely create a totally different legacy. And so I hope that when audiences walk out having heard all of the voices in the conversation that it sparks debate and sparks conversation. Then I hope it also sparks them to ask themselves what would you want your legacy to be?

I love how you described protests as disruption and interruption. From your character's perspective, do you think that this situation changed her from being solution oriented? 

I think so. I think the situation gave her an unexpected pause in her own life. Which is why we get to see so much of her revealed later in the film. I do not believe she went in imagining herself to feel some emotional or direct impact in the way that she did. I think I left the film wondering if Katherine continued on that job. That's how I left it. I don't know if someone who was meant to steel themselves that way, if they find themselves interrupted or affected, what the next step then is for them. I was wondering in that final scene of hers, is she turning in her resignation papers? Can she do this job still? Because she has been impacted. So then it made me also wonder this question: will LeMarcus succeed?

"National Champions" will be in theaters on December 10.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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